Elizabeth Zelvin’s latest short story, “The Island,” appears in EQMM’s November/December issue, which goes on sale next week (though many subscribers already have copies!). The New York City author, recently the editor of the anthology Me Too Short Stories, has received several award nominations for her short stories, and she is also a novelist known for her Bruce Kohler series and for historicals set in the time of Columbus. In this post, she talks about the place that inspired “The Island,” a place she knows well, if from a different perspective than that of most tourists.—Janet Hutchings
Everyone’s heard of the Hamptons. It’s a glamorous outpost of New York City, playground of the rich and famous, surrounded by beaches and bursting with designer summer homes, glittering nightlife, artists and writers, and money. Not untrue, any of it. But it’s only part of the story.
The Hamptons are not exactly an “it.” They’re a cluster of villages and hamlets on the South Fork of the two-pronged eastern tip of Long Island. They’re also a state of mind, a matter of style. They’re lobster, not hot dogs; wine, not beer.
For the beautiful people, the glamor, and the sets of Woody Allen movies, look “south of the highway.” That’s Montauk Highway, better known nowadays as Route 27. North of the highway is where the ordinary people live, both locals and city folk like me who love the peace and quiet, the clean air, the birds and flowers, and the ocean. We have an 800 square foot ranch house—that’s about the size of a subway car. It’s lucky there are no wolves in the Hamptons, because if you huffed and you puffed . . . We try to avoid the phrases “house in the Hamptons” and “East Hampton” because they give people the wrong idea. Instead, we say, “the East End of Long Island.”
It’s true about the artists and writers. East Hampton in particular, like other famed seaside artist colonies, has that magical quality of light that attracts visual artists. What draws the writers? James Fenimore Cooper started the trend two hundred years ago, followed by Steinbeck, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, E.L. Doctorow, and Thomas Harris. As a setting for fiction in general and especially for crime, the Hamptons have it all: sophisticated arena where old money and brash celebrity mingle; political hatchery; close-knit fishing community; farmland and seascape; vineyards and horse farms, marinas and wildlife preserves.
The most highly publicized real-life murder in the Hamptons was fueled by greed: multimillionaire investment banker husband killed by electrician boyfriend of crazy divorcing wife; real victims, the couple’s two young children. Real life doesn’t need much of a twist.
The fictional murders are less straightforward. Alafair Burke, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Susan Isaacs, among others, have all set novels there. South of the highway, the Hamptons is an upstairs-downstairs with flimsy twenty-first century boundaries: the rich and powerful who open their luxurious houses for the summer and the locals who clean those houses, maintain their gardens, and sell them fish and corn and fresh tomatoes. The novelists put that conflict in play as well as the north of the highway version, which is more like town and gown: the ordinary summer people and the local year-rounders.
I’ve set two of my own works in the Hamptons. My third novel in the Bruce Kohler series, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, takes place in an imaginary Hampton I call Deadhampton—Dedhampton on maps and town documents—in which Bruce and his friends take shares in a clean and sober group house and find a body on the beach at the end of Chapter One.
My short story, “The Island,” in the November/December 2019 issue of EQMM, refictionalizes an experience I had while researching Vacation: a day out fishing on Gardiners Bay with a neighbor who welcomed me onto his boat, taught me to cast for blues, took me around the back of the biggest privately owned island in America, and told me the story of the capture of Captain Kidd, a South Fork legend. You can find all of that in the novel. Then I added ongoing Hamptons rumors about what happens if you try to set foot on the island. This was more or less borne out by the experience of my next-door neighbor’s teenage son, who canoed over there when he was supposed to be lifeguarding the bay beach and got repelled. But that was a prank, not an emergency. Anyhow, these elements got thrown into the pot and stirred into a story.
My latest publication, not counting “The Island,” is the anthology Me Too Short Stories. I didn’t set my story in that book in the Hamptons, but I could have. It’s easy to think of crimes against women—not only harassment and intimidation, but also abuse and assault—to which a Hamptons beach community lends itself. Lots of bars. Lots of relatively powerless women in subservient positions, trying to make a living as cleaners, nannies, waitresses, or salesgirls. Bare skin on the beach, always subject to misinterpretation. The atmosphere is informal, literally unbuttoned, and the vacationers have plenty of time. Anything can happen.
In Vacation, there’s partying, drug dealing, bullying by charisma and machismo, corruption of the young, blackmail, compulsive eating, compulsive gambling, love gone haywire, and a whole houseful of people who aren’t drinking or doing drugs but keep finding bodies. In “The Island,” there’s an eccentric so rich he owns his own island. There’s history and legend. There’s a day on the water and a chance to get away from it all—not a bad setup for crime.
What else? There are deer. Did I mention that although the Hamptons are an outpost of the city, they’re also “the country”? Ah, the Hamptons! Custom cannot stale its infinite variety. And if it withers, you get out the garden hose. Or put on your bathing suit and jump into the ocean.